Butterfly Man/Chapter XXIII
THEN it was all over, all, all over. No passion about it. Coolness. Sheets. Deep shadow and a flat colorless taste. Then knives. Pain. Now, pain gone, winter gone, slim spire of the Methodist church rising above the Camino. And it is spring.
No sound. Stark, clean quiet. Pain gone. Heart quiet. Clear thoughts.
I am me, Ken reminded himself. On the dressing table a cool, tall glass of orange juice, sweet to the mouth. He sipped, ice between his teeth; and smiled.
The bed still fresh. His own bed, white enameled, brass knobs. Shorter than he had thought. The dresser gone. A new table, wheeled close to the bed.
Comfort. That was it. And release. No passion. No desires. Time passing noiselessly. Distantly a motor car. The wistaria blooming. The old oak slow to green. Unchanged the lawn, pebbles sparse in the drive-way. Beyond the sycamore, bees probably buzzing about its trunk as in the old days; the huge, gray stone trough for horses still standing unchanged.
Six months in bed. Tomorrow he would rise. Months that slowly, slowly passed.
At first tortured, maddened, stabbed by physical pain, then by the gnawing of inner desire. Hours under opiates, vague fleeting hours, visits, friends, flowers, messages.
None from Howard. Who was Howard? Who was this Howard? Was Howard ashamed to face him? Perhaps he had fled from New York to avoid notoriety. Perhaps—
But why wonder? The world had been charged with violence; foolhardy, he had stalked through it into a flame. The flame had cleansed him pure, white.
Fears gone. Explanations made. Liquor. Liquor. Thirst. That was his vice. The other—he had not been truly vicious. He had been misled; he had gratified monstrous desires borne of liquor.
Simple to understand, to welcome the respite. Simple to lie quiet, drug dulled.
Clearly remembering his solicitous acquaintances who had visited him, a composite of voices, hands, faces. Would he lose his leg? Was the tendon cut? Would he ever be able to dance again? Questions bombarding his ears. His career, his destiny—they worried about that, patronizing Englishmen who hated the Farraguts.
Seriously concerned were his friends of the road tour. Rosemary Rose, pert, helpful; Annie Begley, cheery with grisly humor. Joe, frightened. Frankie, vacant and sad; Ray Leech, Myra Malloy, Jean, nervous because she could not bring Zigzag into the sick room—pretending to care for him, they were thinking, thinking always of themselves.
For weeks he lay motionless, his leg suspended. The operation was postponed again and again. Time passing carried away his "friends." They came less and less frequently. On Christmas, a single visitor, Johnny Keeler, Diana's ex-husband, a mere acquaintance, in his hand a gift, on his lips a word of cheer.
The past, sinking into brooding depth, was leaving him alone. Only one absent from memory: where was Howard? No word, not a word.
Unexpectedly his father, day and night in a bus, had come to New York. The old man was shocked. His face was gray. He was old.
That day, it happened, all danger was definitely past. Infection had ceased; the wounded flesh, freshly knitted, was healing. His leg lay straight on the bed.
"Dad," he had said. "I'd like to go home."
And thus he was at home. Reading. Resting. Tomorrow in the easy chair. Spring passing, he would grow strong again. Renewal, regeneration had been borne to him through an ordeal of pain. He would never, he decided, return to New York.
On the impressionistic canvas of his memory, a detail, lividly plain, emerged. The masquerade, he now called it. For in the still hours, dad at his office, Martha cooking dinner, the Dallas paper read, it was quite apparent that he had never sinned wilfully. Faintly amused at the idea of sin, its old connotation bringing back older memories, a revival meeting at Selma, a tent on the lot back of the Lowell block, red fire outside, hell fire within, a screaming, screeching preacher again and again chanting the words, "Sin, sin, sin no more, ye Sinners." He had not been a sinner. Evil had crept on its slimy belly toward him, forcing him to join—he was still amused—the devil's masquerade.
Here, for instance, in the old frame house, no one had ever heard of "the other world." Inconceivable idea, in the high lighted spring morning, with its fringe of fleece-white clouds, hovering a moment, then hastening away. Inconceivable, indeed, was any life save the simple life, toil, modest amusement, tender unfolding of love, a "pretty" marriage, squalling children and a succession of mild, equable days leading to a peaceful grave.
Of course, such a life was impossible. That is, now. He was passing young manhood. The boy Kenneth could have been such a Texan. Perhaps he would have been making good money now …
But how account for Mr. Lowell? That old devil had been born in Texas, lived and grew up right here in Selma. What had driven him into the curious bypaths of sex? Fantastic now that castle of Star-ridge; naïve Ken, hypocritical Mr. Lowell. He must ask dad what became of the old imbecile.
For it was imbecilic, now, wasn't it? Ken said aloud: *Tm not really that way." He wasn't, he decided. He'd just never cared about girls. And then Anita, false, foolish Anita. Chance had made her the only woman with whom he had been intimate. She, too, was an imbecile, more than a little mad. Thoughts of her were nauseating to him. He let his eyelids droop; he dozed; he fell asleep.
When Ken could walk, he visited the village. It was much the same. Old Kennealy, the grocer, was gone. An A. & P. had taken his place. Fire had gutted Ike Levine's department store. He'd used the insurance to open a big establishment in Sweetwater, hard by. Mr. Barton was still talking about the God-Like life in the First Presbyterian Church. Dud Betts was married now, two children. Old Asher was dead.
That day Uncle Joe came in from Wayne. Very old now. Eighty-six. Really dad's uncle. He'd butchered a pig, though, that very morning and then driven the wobbly Ford seventeen miles to put the porker in the smoke-house for winter bacon and ham.
"Smoke cured ham," said Uncle Joe, "is good for the lining of the stomach. Never does deteriorate. When I was a lad fighting side by side with Joe E. Johnston back of Vicksburg, we once captured a wagon load of northern hams from the Yanks. They were spoiled and they were the only spoiled hams I ever did see. Northern smokin', I'd say, northern smokin'.
"As for you, boy, better you'd keep out of them cities. We ain't been needing underground railways here. You couldn't have fallen offa one and nearly had your leg cut off. Better if you'd stayed at home."
He climbed the steps to his father's office in the Lowell block. Stairs creaked under his weight, the old glazed glass door opened. Dad sat behind the ancient roll-top desk. He was aging rapidly, skin tightening, yet he was only fifty-six. Now he was happy. His eyes gleamed at the sight of his son.
"Does me good to see you on your own locomotion," George Gracey said. "Was it hard on you, climbing them there stairs?"
"No. I feel great."
"That's the stuff. Great. And so do I to hear you tell it."
The office had a distinctive odor. Yellowing papers. Dust. Clean dust.
"Same old Lowell Block," commented Ken.
"What's happened to the old guy?"
"Didn't you read about it in the papers?"
"It was quite a case. You were on the road then or I'd a written to you. He was strangled by someone in that big place of his where you stopped for a while."
"With a silk stocking, a woman's stocking. Lucky for me—the executors of his estate never did come across the mortgage papers, and the bank that held them failed, so it looks as though Jim Winston, who's county clerk now, will do me a favor and I'll have the house free and clear at last."
His father continued to talk, small talk of the village, while Ken shuddered at the imagined scene; Mr. Lowell, clad in the velvet robe, black silk stocking garroted about his throat, swollen purple tongue protruding from his gaping mouth, dead eyes hideously open, the organ pipes high above him.
"I'm chilly," Ken interrupted his father. "I think I'll go home."
June was the month when Ken would go Back East. His leg was now thoroughly mended. He had begun to exercise it. To his relief, he found that the long period of enforced idleness had not seriously impaired his ability to kick high and true.
In late June, New York would begin stirring; new shows for the fall season would be announced. He would find an engagement within a month or two.
He had decided to dispense with Leon Shaw's managerial services. Leon was a producer's man. He had inveigled Ken into signing the contract with Howard. Ken preferred to make a fresh start under new auspices. He might look up Nellie Nasmuth and experiment with a vaudeville act for Nellie, Norah and himself. Or he might work for a few weeks in picture theatres.
At any event, he would avoid liquor and old friends. He would live alone. He would maintain this even temperament that was now his, the ability to think straight. He would revert to that period before he met Howard, when for nearly two years he had tasted no liquor, indulged in no parties and had had no affairs of any kind.
He would, he decided, avoid emotional stress. The slate was clean now. He had spent five months in Selma and except for a letter from Leon, he had heard from no one in New York. Why should he bother with faithless friends? Had they not used him? Hadn't he paid their bills open-handedly? And amused them?
He was restored, he thought. His path lay wide before him. He would continue to live sanely in New York. He might even decide to marry. It was conceivable that he might find in New York a young woman whose social position would be assured, who would be attracted to him because of his physical charm and his personality, whose moral standards would be irreproachable and who would establish for him the solid basis of a safe position—home and a family.
If he should meet such a woman, he would, as Mr. Barton put it, cleave to her at once. He would propose marriage and go through with it. Love of the sort one reads about—that might develop. Indeed, sentimental love would be unimportant. Salient only would be her guardianship over him, the many minor details of marriage, the little things of life—distractions, petty scenes, localized interests.
To attain this commonplace goal, Ken would begin to observe women. He had never really noticed them before. They were, it was true, rounded, vividly colored, frequently alert and even witty. A few were notably independent. He wouldn't want that sort. He would prefer a woman of the clinging vine type, one who would force him to cherish her. He would attempt to find pleasure in the sweet ecstasy of fervent kisses, in the warm scent of tingling hair. He would wait silently for these manifestations of desire; he would withhold his participation in cheaper, more devious frenzies, so that, the moment come, he could prove that he was a man, not different from other men.
He was happy in the thought that he had attained a point of view completely at variance with that of other days. He could, he thought, trace the slow development of the decay, now at last arrested, the cancerous growth removed. He was whole, sane. He would remain so.
He did not leave for New York until the fourth of July. It was mid-afternoon, a sultry day with Texas lying on a thin shell above an inferno. Heat waves were rising in distorting curtains from the pavements as Ken walked with his father from the Lowell block to the station.
It was cooler within the brick building. Father and son sat, chatting about little things. Uncle Joe would be down on Sunday; Martha had asked Dad to put in a gas stove, but he didn't want to spend even the three dollars a month instalments. When Ken returned to New York, he said, and when he got a job, he would send money home. And take out insurance. And otherwise become a good boy.
They were still chatting when the rickety local train wheezed into town. The heat had quieted every one down. No sound except the hoarse blast of the whistle, the grinding of brakes, the gasping of steam-laden air.
What could Ken say to his father? That he had saved him? That his love had restored him?
"Dad," he said, "good-bye." He pressed his father's hand. As he sat on a red plush car seat, he looked out of the window. Crumpled, small, his father was hurrying into the shade of the station.
Ken wondered if he would ever see him again.
At Houston, he changed cars. A short run to New Orleans and then north. The transcontinental train was air-cooled. The Pullman car was comfortable, fans whirring, a solicitous porter hovering about.
"What time is it?" Ken asked.
"Seven fo'ty. Had yo' dinner?"
"Better go in now or it'll be too late."
The diner was crowded. Bustling waiters, a grave steward, the odor of rich foods reminded Ken of New York. A sensory impression, stimulating his mind, recalled the road trip, gay dinners en route.
"If you don't mind sitting with someone else," the steward apologized, "I can place you at once."
Ken didn't mind and he found himself seated opposite two women.
Her name, she said, was Catherine Granville.
"Not really, of course. I'm under contract to a movie company. I'm really Lucy Faydenson. Don't you like mamma?"
Mamma was sitting at the club car desk, writing. She was young, slender, in summer linens, her chestnut hair curled perfectly despite two days on the train.
"Mamma is very pretty," Ken said.
'"That's the trouble. She's too pretty. They should have signed her, instead of me."
"You're not so bad," Ken said.
"Texan?" she asked.
"I'm an actor, dancer, I should have said, born in Texas and developed in New York.
"Oh, so you've been developed."
"No. I'm still green."
"I'm seventeen," she volunteered. "I make one-fifty a week now. We're going to New York to buy clothes. Mamma, you see, is very rich. Dad pays her plenty for alimony. We're society people, you see. That's how I got the contract. But I've made good—even so. The studio picked up my option."
"Why are you going to New Orleans?"
"It's Mamma's idea. She wants to take the boat to New York."
She was little. Not exactly petite. But small. Small hands, feet, lips. Her eyes were blue with a sheen of gray green. They alternately laughed and implored. Her nose was straight, yet interesting.
She was curves. A bundle of curves. Rounding curves. Arms white and small. Hair wind-blown. Breasts obviously curving.
Ken observed her. "What shall I call you?" he asked.
"Lou," she said.
"Yes. Mamma hates it. Mamma likes you, though."
"Why do you say 'though'?"
"She said so. She's afraid of the Hollywood boys. Too pushing. She said, after dinner, that you were the clean-living type. Are you?"
"I wash behind my ears." They laughed.
"Let's go out on the observation platform," she suggested. "I like you and I don't want Mamma to change her mind."
"You're frank," he said.
"It pays. Are you going by boat to New York?"
"I didn't plan to. But I might."
They stepped on the observation platform. The night was full of stars. In a corner sat a man. They chose the other railing and leaned over.
"Shucks," she said, "why couldn't we have our own private car?"
"If you had, you wouldn't have met me."
"I mean our car, yours and mine."
"An idea, but an expensive one."
"Mr. Man," she said with determination, "I'm little but oh, my! And Dad is my dad and I'm not divorced from him. He has scads of money and would never miss the price of a private car. What's more, I'm going to be a movie star."
"Then we can have two private cars, one for you, one for me."
"Elegant," she said; and her little hand slipped into his.
Amazingly he relished the situation. What was wrong with it? Nothing. She was a jewel, an ornament, a pretty thing.
"You are different," she said. "Are you sure you're on the stage?"
"You don't act like it. It's dark here—"
"I haven't got the nerve," he admitted.
"But you're way past twenty. Haven't you ever—"
The man in the corner rose and went into the car.
"Shall we try?" Ken asked. He was positively excited. It was delicious, novel, rare—almost immoral.
He caught her in his arms and kissed her.
"Very talented," she commented. "Thank heaven for kissproof rouge."
"And for you," he said.
"Thanks," she curtsied, swayed with the train and was again in his arms.
He held her, silent, the night air caressing their cheeks. Long minutes thus. The train slowed down. They stood apart. The darkness had created an illusion. Mind with the speed of lightning flashed back to a memory.
This thrill—was it a thrill? Was it potent? Or just an illusion?
Difficult to know the truth. The car door opened. "It's Mamma," she said. "It's a man," he said. He did not move, only his eyes veering to the left.
The man went to the other side of the platform and gazed out into the receding night.
"I'm going in," she said. "I'm chilly. And Mamma might complain. Meet me in five minutes in Car Four."
"I will," he said.
She slipped away, eyes petulant yet amused.
"Have you a match?" the man inquired.
"A lighter," said Ken.
Orange flame flickered and went out. They moved to the shelter of the door, but again the flame died.
"Thank you, never mind," said the man. In the pale light he was no longer a man, very young, little more than a boy. "I remember you," he said. "I noticed you at dinner. You played in 'Sweeter than Sweet'?"
"Good memory," Ken complimented him.
"It was wonderful to watch you. I'm from Cincinnati, you know. I went to the show every night that week."
"You must have been very young."
"Fifteen then—eighteen now. But I haven't changed much. I still think of you as—"
"As what?" Ken asked.
"W-well," the youth hesitated, "wonderful. That's it, wonderful."
Fie was fair, blond, golden-haired. A fine head. Rich lips. Well set up, too. Soft golden down on his cheeks. Implicitly trusting eyes.
"Have you never been in New York?"
"Oh yes, lots. I came there to see you in 'The King's Own.' But you'd been in an accident."
"Why didn't you look me up?"
"Oh," he protested, "I shouldn't have dared. I always felt I'd meet you. I felt that fate would contrive it, just as you see. Tonight you passed me in the diner. I waited here for you. I could hardly stand it. I was afraid I'd never get a chance to talk to you alone."
Fie was very fair, very trusting.
"It's simple, isn't it?" he asked. "Life, I mean. You wish hard and your wish comes true."
"What did you wish?"
"To meet you, to be with you long enough to feel the full beauty of your friendship. You've been my ideal. You can't do wrong."
"But you don't really know me."
"I know you well enough. Are you going north?"
"Yes," said Ken.
"By boat or by train?"
The door opened. Lou stood there. At her side was Mamma.
"You'll catch cold out here," Mamma said. Then she saw the boy. "Oh, excuse me."
"What is your name?" Ken asked.
"I'm Tommy Cook," he said. "And I apologize most sincerely for intruding."
"That's perfectly all right," Mamma said.
"This is Mrs. Faydenson and Miss Faydenson," Ken said.
"Catherine has been telling me that you might join us in our sea voyage to New York—"
"Please don't call me Catherine," Lou protested. "It's perfectly silly to give me a long name like that when I have a sensible little name like Lou."
"You are embarrassingly blunt," Mamma said. "Soon I shall be a movie mamma. You'll hate me and make everyone else hate me."
(Deliberately offering me an opportunity for a compliment, thought Ken. I shan't say a word.)
He said nothing.
"I asked the porter if you could exchange your ticket."
"You did what?" Mamma demanded.
"Was I indiscreet?"
"Indiscreet! But Mr. Gracey hasn't—"
"As a matter of fact," Ken interrupted, "I've decided to continue on this train."
Lou, Ken thought, was blanching. Mamma said "Oh!" Tommy Cook said, "Excuse me, I must go in. I'm in Car Three—Compartment 'B'." He passed the Faydensons. "Excuse me," he said again as he opened the door.
"I'm so sorry," Lou said. "Right here in front of Mamma, I'll say it. Ill be called a forward hussy and what-not—"
"I must be in New York this week," Ken explained.
"New York won't matter," she plaintively shook her head. Tears were rising. She flew into the car, slamming the door.
"You are, you know," said Mamma, "a very bad man to upset my little girl this way. I'd be inclined to scold you, if I didn't like you myself."
"Thanks," said Ken.
"We'll be at the Ambassador next week. Please call. And—good-night."
When he was alone, he sat down. Steel rails swiftly passed beneath him. The stubborn rotund moon was rising over the flat plane of the fields. Half an hour passed. He did not think. He rested, emotionless.
At last the door opened. Tommy Cook gently whispered: "Asleep?"
"Sit down," Ken said. "Be very quiet. Peaceful. You will be, won't you?"
"When I'm with you, I don't have to speak. You know."
"Yes—" Ken repeated. "I know."